Girls at Play: Do We See Black Childhood Clearly?

 “Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.”
― Dr. Seuss

Where Have All the Children Gone?

As I watch YouTube videos of black girls who twerk, as I invite and request my students to study their performance as both play and to examine how others’ views of black girls’ childhood are distorted and distorting how those girls see themselves, I have been remembering my earlier work on black girls’ games. I don’t want to lose that black girls are children at play while also critiquing what it means to play with self (sexual)-objectification. This video doesn’t have that objectification piece in it from the girl or the boys. Check it out. Perhaps introducing this music and dance to adolescents would be interesting. Having them analyze its difference from US twerking in videos.

PS What I love about this video also is that they are playing freely in the mud after a rain in their yard.

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 “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
― C.S. Lewis

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning…They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play.”
~ Fred Rogers (from the PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood)

Juneteenth: First-Hand Literacy and Freedom

 “…i wanted to be a new person and my rebirth was stifled not by the master but the slave.” – Nikki Giovanni.

fsa

 

Celebrating Juneteenth – and a letter from my great great grandfather

The United States freed its last slaves on this day June 18, 1865, 149 years ago. Officially commemorated as Juneteenth, this holiday goes unmarked and unnoticed by the majority Americans, including many African-Americans. Which begs the question: why? When TED Fellow Kyra Gaunt received a copy of a letter from her great great grandfather, a former slave who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, his handwritten words opened her eyes to how limited, fragmented and ephemeral narratives of slavery still are. A shorter version of this story appears on the ideas page of TED.com.

NOTE: I hope readers will consider that online literacy leads to emancipation for black girls and others, too.

In March 2014, I was struck with tears after opening an email from my mother that began: “Read this history about your great, great, great grandfather. Wow, what a rich heritage!”

Attached was a copy of a letter, titled “LETTER FROM SHERIDAN FORD, IN DISTRESS.” I was a letter my great, great, great grandfather had written in 1855, 159 years ago on February 15th. He’d recently escaped slavery in Portsmouth, Virginia, on the Underground Railroad. I was reading the words of one of my kin — in his own hand.

The letter had been sent to my family by a reporter from Portsmouth, who explained that Ford had written this letter to a friend once he’d reached Philadelphia, entreating him to help his (first) wife and children, who were in jail at the time. They would be left behind; a causality of emancipation. The letter had been published in 1872, in a book by William Still — a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Here is the text in full: 

LETTER FROM SHERIDAN FORD, IN DISTRESS.

BOSTON, MASS., Feb. 15th, 1855.

No. 2, Change Avenue.

 MY DEAR FRIEND:—Allow me to take the liberty of addressing you and at the same time appearing troublesomes you all friend, but subject is so very important that i can not but ask not in my name but in the name of the Lord and humanity to do something for my Poor Wife and children who lays in Norfolk Jail and have Been there for three month i Would open myself in that frank and hones manner. Which should convince you of my cencerity of Purpoest don’t shut your ears to the cry’s of the Widow and the orphant & i can but ask in the name of humanity and God for he knows the heart of all men. Please ask the friends humanity to do something for her and her two lettle ones i cant do any thing Place as i am for i have to lay low Please lay this before the churches of Philadelphaise beg them in name of the Lord to do something for him i love my freedom and if it would do her and her two children any good i mean to change with her but cant be done for she is Jail and you most no she suffer for the jail in the South are not like yours for any thing is good enough for negros the Slave hunters Says & may God interpose in behalf of the demonstrative Race of Africa Whom i claim desendent i am sorry to say that friendship is only a name here but i truss it is not so in Philada i would not have taken this liberty had i not considered you a friend for you treaty as such Please do all you can and Please ask the Anti Slavery friends to do all they can and God will Reward them for it i am shure for the earth is the Lords and the fullness there of as this note leaves me not very well but hope when it comes to hand it may find you and family enjoying all the Pleasure life Please answer this and Pardon me if the necessary sum can be required i will find out from my brotherinlaw i am with respectful consideration.

SHERIDAN W. FORD.

 

The Debt of Forced Migration: Local Memory

I was overcome with heavy tears at what this letter meant to me. His writing spoke of options I never knew or realized slaves had even as a professor. He was literate and well versed in writing by 1855, and he clearly articulates the value his freedom in ways no Hollywood script by Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino could ever aptly capture. This was not mediated by images but across generations of forgotten memories of my kin.

Here was a letter written phonetically in respectably lucid language, five years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act from the Compromise of 1850 — which ended Reconstruction and led to the discriminatory, second-class ranking Jim Crow laws. My great great grandfather could have been snatched back to the South if ever found in the North by his lawful captors.

This is more than any memory passed down orally, and better than any autobiography published in a book. It was evidence, a liberated truth. It was a local knowledge penned in a formerly enslaved man’s full grasp of a belief in God, his humanity and the justice in being newly free.

It seemed like a miracle to read the words of someone who I am related to, who I could trace to my bloodline instead of some generalized story about slavery.

Why? White Americans aren’t the only ones who don’t like to remember slavery and its history.

 

 1863: 5 Million Freed, 1 Million Lost

According to the 2013 US Census, there are 41 million people who identify as African-American and I could lay money on that fewer than 1% will publicly celebrate the 150th anniversary of June 19th, or what we call “Juneteenth” — also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day — when it rolls around next year, even though the holiday is recognized in 43 of our so-called united states.

On that day in 1865, the state of Texas freed the last enslaved Africans in America. They were not slaves, they were Africans. General Order No. 3 was announced in Galveston: 

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States [originally signed two years earlier by Abraham Lincoln], all slaves are free. … The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

African Americans don’t have many stories about our enslaved ancestors or their escape.

When I grew up no one talked about slaves inside black family life. Slaves were objects in public debates, always referred to in some generalized manner and the talk was always “we come from slaves” (not enslaved Africans). We were property – not our humanity or ethnicity. And we had our nationality stripped with every stroke of a slavemaster’s whip.

Most people today know they set “us” free in 1863. But no one ever knew told me that Lincoln freed 5 million enslaved African people and that 1 million of the newly liberated women, men and children died within the first year. With Emancipation came starvation and other effects of being freed among Southerners who still wished to chase former slaves with bloodhounds in the name of their own right to life, liberty and property.

Kunte Kinte
The birth of Kunte Kinte in the ABC Miniseries Roots by Alex Haley, 1977. Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson appear with infant. The book was released in 1976 during the bicentennial celebration of the founding of the USA.

African American remembering is more lore than lived memory. Most often we cherry-pick popular slave narratives or mediated memories like those in Alex Haley’s ABC mini-series Roots: “Behold! The only thing greater than yourself!” Comedy is sadly much more common. Our memories are like second-hand clothes, mediated scripts of third-world stories. They carry no local knowledge or memory at all of the broken backs who once carried them. Mostly, we nurse broken memories of forced migrations thrown overboard.

When we do get to the real memories, we try to tell “the right” story, the “grotesque” how-could-they-do-this-to-us story, or the capitalism-was-built-on-the-back-of-the-debt-paid-with-our-free-labor-and-forced-sex story. There’s Toni Morrison’s story of a mother’s love expressed in the salvation of killing her children rather than allowing them live as chattel slaves. But mother’s love is supposed to deny such a thing as infanticide. 

Most African-Americans will never even have read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. I haven’t, though I have quoted a part about singing. I didn’t even know it was from his tongue. I own a recording of his words loudly declaimed by esteemed actor Ossie Davis on a set of recordings about African American music:

Slaves were expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave was not liked.

And thus, we continue our silence in a post-racial America.

 

Today, many African Americans do not know Douglass’s literate freedom nor Harriet Jacobs. We remain in the bondage of our own lack of curiosity surrounded by institutional miseducation about who we were and who we can be. So reading the handwritten words of my grandfather’s grandfather first-hand — it changed something in me.

It turns out that we were more than anything I had ever learned — more literate, more compassionate, more enlightened — and we must be re-membered to more of these kinds of memories. The inscribed evidence: “i love my freedom.” An ownership of not just one’s liberty but of one’s own literacy. I can now claim my descendance from the Race of Africa from the words of my own kin, from within my immediate family, and not from some televised fiction. No more silence, writing next time.

Find William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad, in which Sheridan Ford’s letter was originally published, on Gutenberg.org.

International Children’s Day! Do Your Thang…and Switch!!

Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.

— Margaret Mead

This is the fate of colored girls globally right now: the denial of their girlhood, the denial of their childhood, and the constant state of risk and danger they are living in.”

                                                      ― bell hooks

quote-being-considerate-of-others-will-take-your-children-further-in-life-than-any-college-degree-marian-wright-edelman-55752

I spent the day writing and grading and thinking about my long term plans for publishing articles and for empowering black female YouTube content creators via my collaborations with my students. It was a powerful weekend where feelings of play were present but not feelings of being a child, with no control, over how life goes. It was an energetic, focused, and peaceful day at home. Last weekend I went to see the Kara Walker installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Going again soon. You must not miss this!! Check our the inspiration for the installation from Kara’s sketches here.

Lush Tongue Restoration

Yesterday, I had a rehearsal and vibes sessions with members of Lush Tongue, a feminist vocal acappella group led by Onome Om that I recently joined. We have our first performance June 7th at LAVA in Brooklyn. To get acquainted we shared the moment(s) we decided music was our lives.

The five women present from the 6 member ensemble shared all the typical ways patriarchy in musical settings can shut you down, steal your voice. They also shared of family and father figures who helped give their musical expression voice. And I shared about how my developing vocal memoir seems to be all about men in and around my life.

So what does all this have to do with International Children’s Day you might ask?

Anybody Sing Me a Black Girls’ Song

I don’t know. But I do think that WHO we all have become as women started at a very young age and shaped our mindset about being female, about the context of life where men and boys seem to rule, and how to bargain for more power and more voice even at a young age. Girls’ agency matters. And I think we owe subsequent generations of children and especially girls — present and in the future to come — an opportunity to know childhood as a space of wholeness, and holiness, for their personhood and their particular ethnic culture.

Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states:

In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.

This applies to black girls twerking off- and online, black girls rapping off- and online, black girls beatboxing and breakin’ off- and online, and just being themselves – quirky, funny, nerdy, sexy, creative, curious, patient, entrepreneurial and smart on- and offline. All of our lives, and especially children’s lives and even moreso the lives of girls of color here in the US and girls living in poverty abroad, are changing in ways we cannot always see, witness (despite the publicness of everything via online video today), or understand fully, online.

Your online reputation today may make or break you tomorrow. So watch out!

For some fun, here are some short YouTube videos of girls’ from around the world playing the kind of games I wrote about in my first book. These are black girls’ games off-line.

Happy International Children’s Day!!
(yesterday now that I am posting past midnight)

IN THE GAMBIA, THEY THROW BODY NOT SHADE!

 

IN LIBERIA, THEY BE CLAPPIN’ IT OUT WITH GAMES THAT ARE FUNK-AY!

 

HEY GIRL, BACK IN THE U.S.!! DO YOUR THANG..AND SWITCH!!

Kyraocity Werks!!

Til next time.

Google Book’s Ngram Viewer: Fascinating Play on Words.

I love words. I love dictionaries. I scored highest on my verbal scores on my SATs and GREs as well as a psychological indicator for ADD I took in my first years of being a professor. I thought I had Attention Deficit Disorder because I had no willpower to finish my work. Still a problem but the psychologist used his data to tell me I was fine.

Data is a fascinating arena. Platforms today can pull all kinds of data together but what it means takes some real thinking. Still it’s fascinating to see what it might suggest. This kind of stuff keeps me curious and learning. It does not answer questions. It raises them.

Anyone seen Google Books Ngram Viewer. Enter a word and map its appearances in literature since 1800s. I tried out some risque words dealing with race, gender, and identity.

With the Ngram Viewer, you can type in a single term or separate terms you want to compare with a comma. This tool is case-sensitive, so be sure you have the word you want right spelled correctly case-wise.

First I typed in “nigger.” The graph spikes in the 1860s, the 1940s and the 1970s. Could go back and analyze what was happening historically and sociologically in those periods that affected their spikes in literature. the 1860s is around the peak of the institution of slavery if my memory serves me well.

Next, I typed in “African.” Made the mistake of entering it lowercase at first and what I got at first justified my bias about Western views of Africa, but the capital  “A” made for more accurate representation though the graph was not that much better in the big picture of things. The word “African” barely registers anything significant until the 1960s–perhaps due to the rise of black power movements in the US and African American scholars entering the literary fray. Then the graph shows a steep incline in the late 1950s with a significant dip in the 1990s. ,

The word “bitch,” a word people are afraid to use for dogs but it household parlance on daytime and evening TV for women and their male offspring, those “sons” of witches, shows on a graph as a steep and steady incline since the 1920s, before that it was pretty leveled off and low by comparison.
I went back and compared “nigger” and “whiteness” and found the graph of these two terms quite revealing.

Check it out for yourself. Do you own comparisons. If the contrast between the sets is too large, one of the terms may show as a flat line at the bottom. If so, try them separately first and compare by sight.

Wonder what you’ll discover. Do share any of your insights.

AGITATED??

If all this stirred up some stuff for you, i hope you’ll agree to be offended and stay connected here. I love to voice what’s unspoken and matters of difference brings a lot along with it.  To ease your pains, check out this TED Talk by Nigerian author and US Professor Chris Abani to soothe your soul and our humanity.

Exploring Gender Cross-Culturally: Africa, Gender and Development

In the representations of Black America we see through media and even through our neighborhoods, patriarchy tends to dominate. Even when it is said that women run the church, the school and even the home, it is men whom tends to be seen as the head of the household. Even his absence points to this as we speak often about the impact of not having a father on the wife/female partner, sons and daughters not to mention the community from both a generational and an economic development perspective. Women are increasingly becoming the heads of households around the world and since women tend to be paid less than men but often have children, this has led to the increasing femininization of poverty. So gender and economic development should be a concern for us all.

PRIORITY AFRICA – Gender Equality

Today, I found an interesting article online by Elizabeth ANNAN – YAO titled “African Gender Research in the New Millenium” She writes:

Gender relations in patrilineal communities differ greatly from those in matrilineal communities. In the former, women tend to be totally submissive to men (their
father, brothers, husband, uncles… ) and have hardly any decision-making powers nor the freedom of speech in public. Some common examples are that women easily yield to forced marriages; they have no political attributions and cannot inherit property…

On the other hand, in matrilineal communities, although women are submissive to men, they have some decision-making powers and liberty of expression and can generally choose their own husband. They can be Queen-Mothers in the political domain and can even inherit property from their maternal uncles and their mother…

Gender relations in general, but particularly in Africa, are always patriarchal in nature … whether in a matrilineal or a patrilineal community, or whether in the upper classes of society, men always impose themselves on women and insist on the subordinate status of women. There is therefore the need to challenge gender inequalities, gender stereotypes, biased attitudes and harmful practices against women and also all forms of discrimination against women in order to promote gender equality which is a necessary tool for development.

I know you readers out there are reading. I can see I get hits everyday. My blog gets traffic. What would really make a difference is for this blog to live in both a read and write culture. Try commenting once a week if you read once a week.

Stephen Lewis on Gender Equality and the Women of Africa. – 1 min – Sep 29, 2006

Here’s a question for the day: What differences do you perceive around your gender expression or role and your relationships with the economy, finances, money, your earning power aka your job/career, power relations at work or home, and even in dating or marriage relative to money?